Steels – the Unsung Hero Material of Metal Additive Manufacturing

steels manufacturing

By Scott Dunham Vice President of Research, SmarTech Analysis It’s no surprise that when the media publishes information on 3D printing or additive manufacturing technologies, what attracts the most attention are the extremes –extreme applications, ideas, and, yes, materials. You can read all about the latest cutting edge activity on printing of metallic glass, gold…..

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Sorting Through the Hype of Compact Industrial Metal AM Printers

compact industrial printers

As I put together my upcoming report on compact industrial metal printers, I can’t help but wonder why some of the competitive low-cost options on the market have been completely overshadowed by Desktop Metal and, to some degree, Markforged. Companies such as Aurora Labs, OR Laser and Pollen AM have had “desktop-like” metal solutions on…..

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How the Clear Dental Aligner Market Could Change Dental 3D Printing Forever

Dental Aligners

Clear dental aligners, like those marketed by Align Technologies under the Invisalign brand, have grown by leaps and bounds over the last several years. The vast, overwhelming majority of these devices are produced via a combination of 3D printing and traditional thermoforming, and are perhaps the single highest volume application for 3D printing technologies in…..

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Compact Industrial Metal AM Printers Are the True “Desktop” Metal Printers

desktop metal

Let’s talk about industrial ‘desktop’ 3D printers, especially as they pertain to metals. Until recently, the metal ‘desktop’ 3D printing market was relatively non-existent, with ‘desktop’ printers being only suitable for polymers. That is until the eponymous Desktop Metal boldly entered the market by high-jacking the term and using it as their company name. It’s…..

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Five Reasons Why Companies Are Turning to Service Bureaus

service bureaus

Additive manufacturing of metal is popular, but some end user companies are reticent about in-house printing of metals parts. This is, we believe, a powerful factor creating opportunities for metal AM service bureaus. This article defines five factors that have some service bureaus planning for a doubling the number of metal machines this year (2019) according to SmarTech.

#1 Metals Printing Can be Trouble

In the future service bureaus are likely to lose business to in-house 3D printer deployments for polymer printing, but their metals business may increase. Additive manufacturing with polymers is more user-friendly than metals printing making the capital and expertise easier for end users to move the process in-house. There are more process parameters and knowledge involved with metal printing. And, on the materials side, new metals may require special techniques and expertise that are not easily or quickly achieved in-house. This “tribal” knowledge will help service bureaus keep their competitive advantage longer as metal AM becomes more cost-effective and user-friendly.

Metal 3D printers will reduce in cost in the next few years – we have already seen how this could happen from the latest HP and Desktop Metal products. Nonetheless, SmarTech Analysis believes that the combination service provider knowledge, supply chain efficiencies, and high-capital cost will keep metal service bureaus competitive for the foreseeable future.

#2 The “Hot Topic Effect”

The current high level of publicity being afforded to metal printing automatically enhances the prospects for metal service bureaus. Hot topics are, by definition, of immediate importance, but they tend to cool down relatively quickly. It is to be expected that metal additive manufacturing will eventually become less hot as it matures and becomes just another process in the engineering toolbox. Yet, less attention doesn’t necessarily mean that market growth would stop, just that investors’ enthusiasm might shrink.

#3 Lack of User Capital and Low ROI

A classic driver for companies to not 3D print in-house is that some companies just don’t have the capital. The impact of this market driver in metal AM is likely to intensify in the future as more end user firms find they have a need for metal AM but cannot justify the capex.

Service bureaus also offer a way for companies to dip their toes in the AM metals business without having to invest heavily in the equipment, expertise, or time associated with bringing the process in-house. Some companies may even have the capital, but due to fluctuations and volumes the return on investment (ROI) of in-house metal AM is too low to make it viable. Offering metal 3D printing won’t tie down a service bureau, and a company can test the market to verify a parts value before investing the capital to move production in-house.

#4 Size, Complexity and Service Bureaus

Service bureaus may be able to handle large and complex parts more effectively and efficiently than in-house printing can. Being able to process large parts will give a service bureau additional value. Bringing metal printing in-house is already difficult enough, adding larger more expensive equipment adds complexity.

Finally, understanding different materials, process capabilities, and how complex features can change a design will be the experience service bureaus should have that will prevent or delay companies from moving in-house. Simple design concepts, post processing, and even part orientation can help produce a better product.

#5 Industry Focus Helps

Expertise in a particular industry provides competitive advantage for service bureaus. It enables a service bureau to better understand its customers and for both customers and service bureaus to interact in a more effective way. As a result, some service bureaus are specializing in customers from the aerospace industry or the medical sector. Specialized automotive service bureaus are also expected to appear in the near future.

These comments apply to polymer AM as well as metals AM, but we note that specialist aerospace and automotive bureaus both have a strong metals orientation. Metals service bureaus that understand the needs, operations and traditions of big metal-using industry sectors are in a better position to win customers than those who don’t.

For more on the topic of AM metals service providers see “Metal 3D Printing Services: Service Revenues, Printer Purchases, and Materials Consumption – 2018-2027,” one of SmarTech’s latest reports. Metal 3D printing is disrupting multiple industries and service providers with a focus on metals will have the opportunities to take advantage of the technology.

The Rebirth of Additive Manufacturing in 2019

As of the end of 2018, it has now been seven years since SmarTech Publishing believes the additive manufacturing (AM) industry reached its most significant inflection point when the mass influx of low-cost desktop machines catalyzed public attention in the technology like never before. Shortly thereafter, in 2013 and 2014, the two largest publicly traded companies in the industry achieved growth levels in both revenues and stock value which further bolstered the world’s interest in AM. During this seven-year span, however, the industry has been challenged like no other period in its history. With collective expectations raised, a similar elevation of the challenges in meeting new found demand has no doubt been a factor in the industry growth over the last few years.

One of the most interesting dynamics during this period has been the ways in which industry activity and attention have made rapid shifts in an effort to capitalize on the significant (but potentially fleeting) surge in interest in AM. Afterall, a failure to meet the demands of customers ultimately results in a lack of customers to do business with, and as expectations and goals leapfrogged capabilities and reality over the last seven years, a number of sizeable or innovative companies have made significant moves in order to build new business foundations that seek to establish a hold in an industry going through a rapid and tumultuous rebirth.

Metal additive manufacturing, while historically much more niche in overall adoption and use than that of polymer 3D printing, seemed to quickly bypass the polymer segment in terms of delivering on the promise of a manufacturing revolution over the last seven years. This has resulted in major structural shifts in the industry which continue to play out in current days. Major industry trade shows have steadily grown to impressive events by any measure, but with more and more emphasis positioned on the latest in metal additive manufacturing technology and solutions. Companies like Desktop Metal, Markforged, Digital Alloys, and other start-ups have far outpaced fundraising based on their metal AM solutions than those in the polymer space since 2016. Leading players previously only positioned in polymer 3D printing have announced major strategic shifts to introduce metals solutions for 2019 and beyond, including Stratasys and HP.

 Global Additive Manufacturing Revenues

 Source: SmarTech Publishing, Additive Manufacturing in 2018 – Review of Key Opportunities

Indeed, over the last seven years, additive manufacturing has been in a state of hectic, uneasy growth. Out of balance, and uncertain, the AM industry could be likened to a race car driver who, in the pursuit of speed and ultimate victory, temporarily loses control of his vehicle for a period of precarious instability—still moving forward, but without the balance and control that guarantees the driver finishes the race at all. In 2018 things appear to be changing yet again. A restoring of balance appears to be forming, with major players beginning to overcome growth challenges little by little towards sustainable progress. This can be credited in part to two developments. First, the influx of multinational entities with considerable resources have joined in the industry in more direct, meaningful, and ultimately supportive ways to help stabilize the path towards meaningful, controlled progress. Global chemical manufacturers the likes of BASF, Evonik, Covestro, Solvay, and many more have begun to take ownership of moving technologies (especially plastics and polymer solutions) more seriously towards becoming tools for manufacturing. Meanwhile, large manufacturing tool and technology companies like Trumpf, DMG Mori, HP, GE, and many more have lent considerable development and supply chain resources to the industry to improve the level of access, consistency, quality, and other aspects required for a maturing technology to succeed.

Second, a massive industry refocus on application-driven solutions has helped focus development efforts and shed negative perceptions of legacy rapid prototyping technologies when targeting more serious manufacturing-oriented engagements. All leading technology companies are now dedicating resources to building machines and solutions with a specific, high value end user in mind, rather than generalized or half hazard strategies in the attempt to make their machines the single go-to solution for every customer type. While the ultimate end goal of the industry may indeed be to take opportunities currently captured by other manufacturing technologies and processes (like CNC machining or injection molding) and convert them to additive ones, the growth driver of the current industry is creating solutions for existing manufacturing problems where other tools and processes struggle to deliver, and creating growth that is complementary—not competitive—to existing manufacturing processes.

Looking ahead to 2019, SmarTech Publishing believes the AM industry will be reborn. Not only does overall industry growth appear to be gaining its pace again with historical levels, but it appears the entirety of the industry stands to make sizable gains in unison, and as a collective rather than in a contrasted group of winners and losers. This is the essence of a true rebirth—becoming whole again, and with a focus on collective and consistent progress.

Opportunities for Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace 2018-2023


The market for additive manufacturing in the general and commercial aerospace industry has undergone several radical changes over the past three years, all targeted toward implementing the AM process in part manufacturing. Although following very different dynamics, these changes concern both the metal AM and the polymer AM (metal replacement and composite) segments. Most of the new evolutions in the AM market indicate a continued and sustained growth in the adoption of metal 3D printing systems, along with rapid technological evolutions primarily on three major fronts: speed, size and process automation. The number of hardware system suppliers has increased dramatically; the number of adopters for end-use part production is also now increasing more rapidly. AM for civil aviation is now closer to serial part production for both polymers and metals. While actual serial production by AM is still limited in size, several processes have been implemented to industrialize, understand and optimize the process.

Click here to view the report.

Opportunities for Automotive Additive Manufacturing 2018-2023


Automotive industry stakeholders worldwide are now racing toward full industrialization and integration of the AM process within their end-to-end production workflow, beginning with software and materials, passing through the AM hardware, and ending with services and a growing number of possible applications. 3D printing is thus well positioned to expand its use as the primary technology for automotive prototyping as well as tooling, while also establishing a stronger than ever opportunity for serial and mass customized part production.

We expect the overall market for AM in automotive to grow to an impressive $12.4 billion US by 2028 (growing at 24.8% CAGR). This growth will be driven in the short and medium term by increasing adoption and use of 3D printing for prototyping and tooling.

Click here to view the report.

Opportunities for Additive Manufacturing in Ceramics 2018-2023


Few materials in the world of manufacturing offer as wide a range of applications as ceramics. When it comes to additive manufacturing, the wide range of ceramic applications and material types is further expanded by the even wider range of different ceramics additive manufacturing processes that have been—and are continuously— researched, validated and implemented in ceramic manufacturing. Ceramics additive manufacturing has been studied for close to two decades (almost as long as AM has existed) and while it has shown great promise from the very beginning only very recently have the first real, practical and commercial applications of ceramics 3D printing begun to emerge.

With all digital AM processes for ceramic production, indeed as with all traditional ceramics production, the printed parts must undergo considerable postprocessing before reaching their desired mechanical and chemical properties and final-part density. In essence, photopolymerization processes first require debinding in order to remove the polymer, and then all technologies require the parts to be sintered — unless, of course, you’re printing sand molds and cores for metal casting.

Click here to view the report.